Nigel Grainge, the British music industry veteran who signed the likes of Sinead O’Connor, The Boomtown Rats, Thin Lizzy, Steve Miller Band, 10cc, The Waterboys and was recognized as one of the top A&R men of his generation, died Sunday (June 11) in Santa Monica, California following complications from a recent surgery. He was 70.
Music was in Grainge’s DNA. His dad Cecil owned a record store in North London and in the early 1950s and gave him a 78 RPM record every weekend from the age of three. And his younger brother Sir Lucian Grainge is chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group, and is widely considered one of the most powerful executives in the world. The pair remained close through the years.
The elder brother was a mover-and-shaker in the international biz long before the Grainge name became synonymous with the biggest music company on the planet. Like many who rise to the top, Grainge got his start in an entry-level position that offered him a wide-angle view on the business. In 1970, he joined Phonogram London (then known as Phillips Records and later as Mercury Records) as a clerk in the accounting department. His deep knowledge of music was spotted early on and he swiftly rose through the ranks, becoming label manager for U.S. repertoire in 1973 and eventually earning stripes as head of A&R. Grainge repaid the company’s faith in him by signing Thin Lizzy, 10cc, Steve Miller Band, Eddy Grant, and others.
In 1977, he stepped out to form Ensign Records (“N” for Nigel, “signs”), and built an enviable roster which included Boomtown Rats, Sinead O’Connor, the Waterboys and World Party. The label also released a slew of influential reggae and jazz-funk recordings.
According to Billboard Magazine, of the first 50 singles released by Ensign, more than half of them charted, “a virtually unprecedented success for the U.K. record industry.”
A decade later, Grainge sold Ensign to Chrysalis and embarked on a new endeavour with the publishing firm Dizzy Heights, which was sold to German independent company Edel in 2000.
Mushroom Music managing director Ian James enjoyed a friendship with Grainge that traces back decades. The pair caught up just last year for dinner in New York, when Grainge was consulting for the HBO series ‘Vinyl.’
James remembers Grainge as a “sophisticated guy,” a smart operator who was always a lot of fun to be around.
“I used to go to his house in Notting Hill where he and his business partner Chris Hill would put on a performance,” he told TIO. “They were two of the most outstanding standup comedians I’ve ever met. He was a really good guy. Always entertaining, and always on it.” Like James, Grainge was a life-long Arsenal Football Club fan.
And what was the root of Grainge’s impressive A&R touch? “Instinct. It’s as simple as that,” explains James. “Some people just have it. If you picked Boomtown Rats, Sinead and the Waterboys, you’ve got it. That’s it. That’s what distinguished those independent labels of that era; many of those labels had immaculate A&R. They just picked the right acts. He always picked people with energy and great songwriting talent.“
Grainge was also known in industry circles as a masterful negotiator who never missed a chance to inject humor into the hard talk. James shares a story, told by Grainge, in which the late exec entered a sale negotiation. “Your fly is undone,“ noted a player from across the table. “I know,“ Grainge explained. “I’m here to f*** you.“
Grainge relocated to Los Angeles in 2002 and is survived by: two daughters, Heidi and Roxie; a sister, Stephanie; two brothers, Lucian and Justin; and a grandson, Jasper.